Yo-Yo Ma rides Rodeo in return to Tanglewood

From left: Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile, who perform together in the Goat Rodeo Sessions.
Goat Rodeo
From left: Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, and Chris Thile, who perform together in the Goat Rodeo Sessions.

Yo-Yo Ma’s cultural presence long ago transcended the world of classical music. When you’re the first-call cellist for presidential inaugurations, you know you’re on a different plane — in fact, he is officially dubbed a UN Messenger of Peace.

Yet Ma’s ties to Massachusetts run deep. When not playing cello around the world, the Harvard University graduate splits his time between homes in Cambridge and Tyringham, and makes annual appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. This summer marks the 30th anniversary of his first appearance there.

Ma returns on Aug. 15 with his latest project, a collaboration with cross-genre bluegrass wizards Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan. The show inaugurates the all-star group’s first-ever tour, aside from a few promotional appearances following the 2011 release of its Grammy-winning The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Ma spoke with the Globe on the phone.


Q. What do you remember about your first performance at Tanglewood?

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A. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Seiji [Ozawa, then-music director of the BSO] asked me to work with the students in the Tanglewood Music Center. At the time I was 28 years old, I’d gotten married, had a child, had been touring for a while. But in some ways it was my first awareness that I actually wasn’t the youngest kid on the block anymore. I was dealing with musicians around college age, and even though I wasn’t that much older, in a way it was already a different generation.

It was so exciting to be able to talk with younger people about music, because there’s a transfer of experiences. That was a huge awakening, to be conscious that people were already coming from a slightly different place and time period. Even at 28, you can get that sense of renewal.

Q. This year you played Dvorák’s Cello Concerto there, the same piece with which you made your BSO debut. How has your take on it changed after 30 years?

A. I’m still trying to get it right, and I don’t mean in terms of just playing the notes. It’s actually not about getting it right once, it’s an experience you go with through time. Especially with this piece, which is really about a life lived. As a 57-year old, you obviously experience life in a different way and all your experience comes into the performance. You have friends who get sick and die, and there’s an older generation ahead of you that’s thinning. All of these things come into storytelling, what you put into a musical narrative.


Q. Before the Goat Rodeo Sessions, you previously worked with Edgar Meyer on the albums “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey.” What incites your curiosity about this kind of music?

A. How often do you work with people who are master virtuosos and also master improvisers and composers, who know at least two musical traditions unbelievably well? That’s what we’re working with here. It’s just extraordinary when you have people who can actually show on their instruments what they’re thinking at any moment, without a delay. As soon as you think it, it gets transferred in your neuromusculature immediately into sound. I think those are extraordinary abilities.

Q. That’s a package you don’t necessarily run across in the classical world?

A. It’s just rare anywhere, to have a bunch of people this talented who really like one another, who are not competitive with one another, who really appreciate each others’ qualities. Working with such incredibly inventive, original people, it’s the thrill of my life.

Q. Is there a middle ground between American folk and the European classical tradition that you’re trying to stake out?


A. The question is interesting depending on what lens you’re looking at the music with, whether you’re using a telescope or a microscope. If you look closely at any musical tradition it’s actually the compilation of a lot of different things. Otherwise it’s like saying American and Russian classical music are the same; they’re not.

When Stuart [Duncan] talks about the bluegrass tradition, my jaw drops to the ground because the stories are so funny. And my epiphany came one day when I realized that I have essentially the same stories from my world, you just put different names into it. That’s where the commonality is.

Q. But aren’t there still musical differences between the genres that need to be reconciled?

A. The specificity of how this shared human nature comes out in different genres might be a preference for certain rhythms, or intervals, or motivic things. They tell me that there’s something you do in bluegrass with stringed instruments that’s a sort of chop, which sounds percussive. I asked them when you would do that. The answer is, you do that chop when it’s needed. You’re just using your ears and comparative aesthetic senses to listen for the best possible blend of sounds based on the nature of each instrument.

This is music of our time, which means it’s who we are. It includes what’s come down to us and how we put it together in a way that makes sense at the moment. You want to be sure you’re saying something that is meaningful to us now but can transcend its own time.

Q. Onstage at Tanglewood, you’ve played Beethoven cello concertos with pianist Emmanuel Ax and “Fire and Rain” with James Taylor. Do you bring the same musical personality into different contexts?

A. Yup. I think the difference is, when I play with Manny we are the hosts of the party onstage. What I love about playing with James Taylor is, he’s the host and my job is to look at what the environment is and be a good guest. It’s a slightly different mental placement.

Q. After all the accolades you’re earned, does the idea that you’re an ambassador for the music ever enter your creative mind-set?

A. Performers are asked to focus on the present moment as well as the larger narrative all the time. You keep two different things in mind, the biggest picture and the smallest picture. So you bring all of yourself, all of your experiences, as well as immediate attention to the job at hand.

This interview was condensed and edited. Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at